Supernatural 08x01 and Prolonged Purgatory
Before I get into an intertextual analysis of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and the book/film the episode’s title references, there are two pieces of miscellanea about this episode that I cannot ignore.
1. Kevin Tran is officially the best ever in this episode. The manner in which he uses his wiles to outsmart Crowley on multiple occasions will never cease to put a smile on my face. Nor will the way in which Osric Chau perfectly delivers one of my favourite lines in the entire series.
What’s going on?
There’s a demon in you, and you’re going to your safety school.
2. Season eight is well-loved in certain circles for being perhaps the queerest season ever. Season twelve competed for that distinguished honour but - holy hell - this episode is one of those ones I want to thrust in the face of folks who deny that there is any LGBTQ subtext in Supernatural. Because this episode - it’s a treasure trove of Ho Yay! Moments.
(all gifs from @deanfightswithmonsters)
Including Spanky the Demon, the one who uses too much teeth.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, onto the relationship between 08x01 and its titular material. There are those occasions in Supernatural where the references are clear: “Jus in Belo” is an homage to Assault on Precinct 13, “Stuck in the Middle (With You)” is a love letter to Tarantino, “Appointment in Samarra” directly connects to the Talmudic tale and its many retellings. Songs not only work within the show’s soundtrack to shape its mood and tone, but often find their way into episode titles. These gestures are not meaningless.
But that is not to say that every allusion is equal - some are gestures rather than directives. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” falls in this category, in my opinion. There’s of course a superficial reference there - Kevin Tran’s importance continuing to assert itself over the course of Season 8. Sam’s neglect and abandonment of Kevin is indeed something a resurrected Dean forces him to confront.
But there are many ways to say Kevin will play a central role in this season’s arc that do not reference another work of art. The book the episode is named after was published in 2003; the film adaptation in 2011 (a year before this season). It is wholly possible that the writers did not intend to engage with this source material at all, but that will not stop my little meta brain from insisting otherwise.
I admit - I have not read Shriver’s book, but I have watched (and loved) Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation. The plot centers around Eva Khatchadourian and her struggles to cope with horrific violence perpetrated by her teenage son, Kevin. It is a story of trauma, guilt, loss, pain that unfolds in fragments - Eva’s memories of the past haunt her in the present. It is a tragedy about a fractured family - about psychological damage - about keeping secrets - about avoiding unpleasant and frightening truths. Its title insists it is necessary to confront a problem of which we’d rather not speak.
Intentional or not, 08x01 shares all of these elements. Both center around protagonists enduring a sort of prolonged Purgatory - one where the past hangs heavy over their heads, where a state of suffering persists through the endurance of painful memories of trauma and loss. Like the film, much of its narrative is told in flashbacks - a device that would be employed in nearly every episode of the first half of Season 8. In fact, Season 8 almost contains more flashbacks than the previous seven seasons combined.
The question is: why?